In an unusual move, the Senate has carried an amendment to the motion to adjourn.
The amendment was moved by the ALP’s leader, Senator Penny Wong. It stipulates that a recall of the Senate earlier than May 10 can only take place with the concurrence of an absolute majority (39 out of 76 members) of the Senate.
A division took place on the amendment. It was carried by 31 votes to 22, with the Greens and other crossbenchers supporting the ALP.
The significance of the amendment lies in its ability to frustrate the government’s intentions to bring the Budget forward from May 10 to May 3. This would allow time for a Supply Bill to be passed if the government seeks a double dissolution on May 11. Constitutionally, May 11 is the last day on which a double dissolution can be called.
March 21 UPDATE: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that he had advised the Governor-General under Section 5 to prorogue the Parliament on April 15 and recall it for a 3-week sitting commencing on April 18. This renders the Senate motion irrelevant, since a prorogation clears the Notice Paper of all previous business.
- Watch the Senate adjournment motion (18m)
Hansard transcript of the Senate adjournment motion and amendment.
Senator FIFIELD (Victoria—Manager of Government Business in the Senate, Minister for Communications and Minister for the Arts) (14:09): I move:
That the Senate, at its rising, adjourn till Tuesday, 10 May 2016, at 12.30 pm, or such other time as may be fixed by the President or, in the event of the President being unavailable, by the Deputy President, and that the time of meeting so determined shall be notified to each senator.
Senator WONG (South Australia—Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (14:09): I move the following amendment to that motion:
at the end of the motion add, “provided that the President or Deputy President may not fix a time under this order unless that time has the concurrence of an absolute majority of senators, where the leader or deputy leader of a party in the Senate can concur on behalf of every senator in that party”.
If I may speak on the amendment, I note I have 20 minutes, and colleagues will be very pleased to know I will not take up that much time. Light-heartedness aside, we have had a game of national kabuki over these last weeks as this government tries to make a decision on whether or not it will go to a double dissolution or early election and whether or not this will require the bringing forward of the federal budget. The government, as has been its wont in relation to tax policy, has allowed this speculation to continue. Ministers have at various times used different variations of words such as, ‘We’re working towards,’ or, ‘The budget is scheduled on,’ and other such weasel words, and we have seen a great deal of speculation in the media about that possibility.
I want to make it very clear, from the Labor Party’s perspective, that we will not be agreeing to a sitting of the Senate that is not currently scheduled simply to assist this government in an election timetable. If the government were minded to so do, then the government ought have moved a transparent motion to that effect, which it could have done this week. The amendment I have moved ensures that the discretion that the President and the Deputy President have to fix another, earlier time for the Senate is bounded by the requirement of a majority of senators concurring. The motion that the Manager of Government Business has moved is a normal part of what the Senate does in between sittings, but I note the circumstances in which we rise on this occasion are quite different. We have had a great deal of speculation, we have had ministers ducking and weaving and we have not had the government being clear about what its intentions are.
If the government has no such intentions, then the government ought not have any concern about this amendment. It is disappointing that the government has indicated—unless Senator Brandis is going to indicate agreement—that it does not agree with it. Obviously, if there were urgent matters, you would anticipate that the opposition, as a party of government, would ensure that the President’s authority could be implemented. I commend the amendment to the Senate.
Senator BRANDIS (Queensland—Attorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:13): The government opposes the amendment moved by Senator Wong. The motion moved by the Manager of Government Business, Senator Fifield, is utterly orthodox. It is the standard motion that is routinely and uncontroversially moved by the government at the end of each parliamentary sittings. For the 16 years that I have been a member of this chamber, I have never seen an occasion in which an opposition has cavilled with, let alone sought to amend, the utterly orthodox motion which Senator Fifield has moved. For that reason alone, because this is unorthodox and, as far as we can determine, unprecedented, the government opposes this motion. However—
Senator Conroy interjecting—
The PRESIDENT: Order, Senator Conroy! Senator Wong was heard in silence and I think the same courtesy should be extended to the leader of the government.
Senator BRANDIS: However, the matter is more serious than that because the amendment is, in fact, at variance with standing orders. I direct your attention, Mr President, to standing order 55(2), the standing order which deals with the times of meetings of the Senate. Standing order 55(2) provides:
The President, at the request of an absolute majority of the whole number of senators that the Senate meet at a certain time, shall fix a time of meeting in accordance with that request, and the time of meeting shall be notified to each senator.
That is one of the modes that Senate practice and procedure provides for for the fixing of a date for the meeting of the Senate, and it provides a mechanism or a device for doing so. It is a manner-and-form provision.
Senator Wong’s motion is different in character. Senator Wong’s amendment is a prohibition. It would add the words: ‘provided that the President or Deputy President may not fix a time under this order unless that time has the concurrence of an absolute majority of senators, where the leader or deputy leader of a party in the Senate can concur on behalf of every senator in that party’. From a legal point of view, there is a very material difference between a provision—standing order 55(2)—which confers a power subject to the satisfaction of stated conditions, on the one hand, and a prohibition on the President from calling the Senate together. This is an amendment to a motion which would have a very different character, but its effect would be to contradict the provisions of standing order 55(2).
If I am wrong about that and Senator Wong’s amendment does nothing more than set out, in slightly different language, what is already provided for by standing order 55(2), then it is unnecessary and odious. Whether it be the case—which is my primary submission, sir—that, by containing a prohibition, this proposed amendment limits a power conferred by the standing orders and is therefore obnoxious to the standing orders or, alternatively, does not do that and is redundant and unnecessary, on either view it is unorthodox and ought not be adopted by this chamber.
Senator WONG (South Australia—Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (14:16): I seek leave to make a short statement.
The PRESIDENT: Leave is granted for one minute.
Senator WONG: Frankly, with respect, those were meaningless word games from the Leader of the Government in the Senate, who really enjoys the sound of his own voice a little too much. It is entirely consistent with the standing order. In fact, it essentially locks in the standing order in respect of a discretion that is contained in the motion the minister has moved.
The PRESIDENT: The question is the motion moved by Senator Wong to amend the motion moved by Senator Fifield be agreed to.
A Division was called. The result was AYEs 31, NOs 22, with the Greens and independents voting with the ALP to pass the amendment.
Original question, as amended, agreed to.
Senator FIFIELD (Victoria—Manager of Government Business in the Senate, Minister for Communications and Minister for the Arts) (14:24): I move:
That leave of absence be granted to every member of the Senate from the end of the sitting today to the day on which the Senate next meets.
Senator Sterle: What would that date be, Mitch?
Senator FIFIELD: Good night and sweet dreams!
Senator WONG (South Australia—Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (14:24): On behalf of the opposition, I just wanted to thank all of the Senate staff—particularly for over the last few days, which have been a very heavy schedule. Also, if people would allow me to, I want to thank staff of the opposition. They have worked extraordinarily hard in these last days. I appreciate it. Thank you.
The PRESIDENT (14:25): The question is that the motion moved by Senator Fifield be agreed to—I should say ‘as amended’. Those of that opinion say ‘aye’, those against say ‘no’. Oh, sorry, that was not amended. It has been a long 30-something hours. We have just agreed that we can all go home, I think—that was the motion. Everyone has agreed to that, I take it. There is no dissent.
Question agreed to.
The PRESIDENT: Can I also add my thanks to staff. I want to echo, in particular, the words of Senator Rhiannon when she clearly articulated her thanks to a number of people in this building over the past 24 to 48 hours. Thank you. I bid all staff here and every senator safe travelling home.
Honourable senators: Hear, hear!
The PRESIDENT: The Senate stands adjourned and will meet again on Tuesday, 10 May 2016 at 12.30 pm.
Senate adjourned at 14:26 (Friday)